At the halfway point of this year, I put together a list of movies that cleaned up in their home countries but were too culturally specific to be likely subjects for American distribution. At year’s end, there’s still plenty of recent cinematic life not destined for US eyes. Here’s a look at ten more domestically successful films you’re unlikely to see in American theaters, now or ever.
GREECE: “Love In The End"
Lacta Chocolate is probably not very good (a friend from Cyprus described it as “sickly sweet”), but they’re incredibly adept at systematically “going viral” to promote their wares. In 2009 they unleashed a video “interactive love story”, in 2010 they released a crowd-sourced 27-minute short film (shown on Greek TV on Valentine’s Day!), and in 2011 they introduced a Facebook app that let people compare the name of their beloved to their favorite Lacta flavor and produce a custom chocolate bar label image, leading to “many users substituting their profile image with their dedicated Lacta,” as manufacturer Oglivy’s website gloated.
All of this was just a warm-up for “Love In The End,” a “branded film” with plenty of product placement layered in amidst three romantic stories. The “case study” video below is astoundingly cynical in explaining how Lacta came up with a romcom that would go on to the biggest opening weekend for a Greek film in five years (only the 18th-highest grossing film of the year though). Sample narration: “Lacta Chocolate’s sweet taste has traditionally been marketed as a substitute for lost love, but amidst the biggest economic crisis in Europe, Lacta wanted to go beyond fulfilling young people in Greece with its taste. It wanted to inspire them to chase after their dreams.” If you thought “Man Of Steel” was cynical in encouraging everyone to go eat at IHOP after shopping at Sears, learn how much worse it could be.
GERMANY: “Fack ju Göhte”
Not Germany’s biggest film of the year — that’d be “Django Unchained” — this is a healthy number two. The title does indeed translate as“F*ck You Goethe,” misspelling the writer’s name, although someone hedged their bets for presumably ignorant American audiences by re-titling the film “Suck Me Shakespeer.” By either label it’s a vehicle for Elyas M’Barek, a German-Austrian actor (sole American credit so far: a vampire in “The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones”) who’s done a lot of time on German TV, notably on “Turkish For Beginners” as Cem, a Turkish teenager living in Germany (per Wikipedia, “a wannabe gangster”).
This time M’Barek is Zeki Mueller, a criminal who gets out of jail and tries to retrieve his ill-gotten gains, only to discover his loot is under the site of Goethe High School. Mueller gets his “Kindergarten Cop” on, becoming a teacher to get access to his stash and incidentally whipping a class of terrifyingly rowdy underachievers into shape via judicious paintball use and other unconventional means. His love interest is teacher Lisi (Karoline Herfurth), whose Rachael Leigh Cook-esque glasses can’t conceal her attractiveness. Those spectacles are a shameless plug for Mykita glasses, so have no fear: the indigenous American art of product placement is being studiously embraced abroad.
NORWAY: “Solan og Ludvig: Jul i Flåklypa"
Putting the relatively timely likes of “The Best Man Holiday” to shame, the stop-motion famil film “Solan og Ludvig: Jul i Flåklypa” (official translation: “The Christmas Of Solan And Ludvig”) came 38 years after 1975’s “Flåklypa Grand Prix” (the fictional town of Flåklypa swapped out for the title “Pinchcliffe Grand Prix” in English). Solan is an upbeat magpie, Ludvig is a downbeat hedgehog, and both are the creations of the late Kjell Aukrust; along with inventor Reoder Felgen (the fictional Norwegian Rube Goldberg), they constitute a beloved fictional trio.
The numerically-verifiable popularity of the original film is pretty staggering: it sold 5.5 million tickets in a country with only 4.9 million inhabitants and played somewhere in Norway for 28 years straight. It’s no surprise that the very belated sequel cleaned up, becoming Norway’s biggest film of the year (and its second biggest hit of the past decade, second only to “Kon Tiki,” which recreated national hero Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 raft trip across the Pacific). And yeah, the stop-motion looks pretty charming, if not as adorable as the original.
NETHERLANDS: “Verliefd op Ibiza”
Johan Nijenhuis has worked in both film and TV; notably, he recently transformed his children’s TV series “Zoop” (the adventures of teen zoo rangers) into three globe-trotting movies, sending the gang to India, Africa and South America. With “Verliefd op Ibiza” (“Love In Ibiza”) he reversed the screen-to-screen trajectory, first making the movie, then turning it into a TV show within record time after it performed big. Released January 31, it’s still the number two film of the Netherlands’ year, and by October 26 the TV translation was on the air.
The setting, obviously, is the party isle of Ibiza: “the island where the near fifty want to be thirty, the thirty something want to be twenty, and the hipsters are out of control,” as the official synopsis describes it. The plot’s a bit of romcom nothing, throwing a bunch of plotlines together that converge at a club where trance mega-producer Armin van Buuren (the soundtrack producer, natch) is having a show. Reading IMDB user reviews, one gathers the critics hated it and that a major attraction hyped in advance was the ass of its leading man.
Did the film deliver on that front? “The buttocks of Jan Kooijman, everybody in The Netherlands was so excited about, is nicely photographed, good camera-work,” confirms an IMDB reviewer. As for that show, the “GAYS OF DAYTIME” message board had some details about who would be joining the film’s original characters: “There are also going to be new characters. This is a good thing, because there weren’t any gay characters in the movie. It has been confirmed that two of the new characters will be gay and involved with each other.”
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: “Bani Adam"
In truth I have no idea if “Bani Adam” is the highest-grossing UAE domestic production of the year (English-language box office data on the country is remarkably hard to find), but “Bani Adam” is worth highlighting just to consider for a moment the unique place the country has in the cinematic ecosphere. The UAE is a small country with a lot of concentrated wealth but no established audience for domestic concerns. It’s very much worth reading this profile of Majid Abdulrazak, a furniture magnate (among other things) who has some very pragmatic things to say about the difficulties of self-financing/-distributing his own films for a small audience whose cultural profile isn’t quite like any other country’s.
Contemplate, for example, Abdulrazak’s discussion of how he chose topics to insert into his film: “endurance horse races are very popular here, so I’ve put that in as a portion of the film. And then Indian and Pakistani workers have a role. Issues like two men loving the same girl, or two girls loving the same man, and how dishonesty can kill a relationship play a part, too. Then there is that ghost which gives you negative thoughts. So all these topics, whether it is social or cultural, are there in this film.” Odd, perhaps, but admirably specific: all countries deserve a strong indigenous cinema of their own, but they can’t sustain one. Abdulrazak is on a very worthy quest.
Then watch this trailer and contemplate where it all went wrong.
PHILIPPINES: “It Takes A Man And A Woman"
Director Cathy Garcia-Molina is the reigning queen of the Filipino rom-com, and this third installment of her “A Very Special Love” series is now the highest-grossing domestic production of all time (inflation unadjusted). (“A Very Special Love” is #9 on that list, with the sequel “You Changed My Life” at #8; a fourth installment is a distinct possibility.) The central couple is played by John Lloyd Cruz, who pretty much owns this genre, and his frequent co-star Sarah Geronimo (also a pop star).
The special characteristic of this trilogy would appear to be the way Miggy (Cruz) and Laida (Geronimo) frequently negotiate their romance primarily within the workplace, since most American romcoms think “work” is something that happens between dramatic phone calls. I’ll let the extremely restless, rib-nudging trailer narrator take it from here.
SWEDEN: “Monica Z”
Sweden’s top domestic product this year (second on the charts only to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) is a biopic of nationally beloved mostly-jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, described by singer-songwriter/debuting actress Anna Magnason as “like meatballs and Pippi Longstocking – a part of the Swedish national soul, a symbol of nostalgic Sweden.” (Take a second to get acquainted with her Bill Evans collaboration “Waltz For Debby” if you’re not already familiar with it; it’s pretty great). The movie’s already been sold to nine territories, though American distribution has yet to be secured; this is something you might actually see here eventually.
“Variety”’s reviewer wasn’t impressed, deeming the film a typically dreary biopic that inexplicably omitted Zetterlund’s acting work and plausibly summing up what’s on-screen: “a conventional checklist of showbiz triumph-and-tragedy cliches, with emphasis on the downside: failed relationships, egomania, insecurity, booze, pills, et al.” Documentarian Tom Alandh (who edited a book and made a documentary about Zetterlund) also objected to the movie’s demonization of her father as “a grumpy, sour, sad [...] self-indulgent and careworn shit boot.”
So if the movie hits all the lows and apparently makes some up as well, why omit the way she died? Per director Per Fly: “Most people in Scandinavia know that Monica Zetterlund died burned in her bed in 2005 as she was completely intoxicated. That is the first image that comes to mind when you think of her name. But she was so much more. I wanted to create other images related to her death with which we could remember her.” Fair enough.
PORTUGAL: “La cage dorée"
Taking the soft touch to social issues, “La cage dorée” is the 40th-highest grossing film of the year in France, where it first came out, but the number one hit of the year in Portugal. Co-writer/director Ruben Alves (himself a French native born to Portuguese immigrants) presumably knows the kind of nerve he’s (lightly) touching with this comedy about a Portuguese immigrant couple who learn they’ve inherited a fortune but can only claim it by moving back home.
Both are such indispensable employees (the mother’s a concierge, the dad a construction foreman) their employees are loath to let them return home, and so the stage is set to broach, then gently resolve thorny questions of immigration, assimilation, France’s oft-questionable treatment of its migrant laborers, etc. Naturally, the film’s been circled by American production companies for a remake that would place Hispanics in America through the same plot, which surely won’t offend anyone.
PERU: “Asu Mare"
Now the highest-grossing Peruvian film of all time (previously the highest-grossing film in the country was, alas, “Ice Age: Continental Drift”), “Asu Mare” probably benefitted from reuniting stand-up comic Carlos Alcántara with his castmates from “Patacláun,” a popular late-’90s sitcom. That nostalgic appeal clearly isn’t going to translate abroad, but perhaps another reason the movie did so well is because Alcántara’s comic self-dramatization of his rise to fame heavily emphasizes his love for his mother and her unflagging support, a motif that plays well in a country where family life is given a lot of reverence.
The nostalgia attendant to recreating the fashions and trends of the ‘60s through ‘90s might also be a factor. “The awkward family gatherings, a mother’s sacrifice, military recruitment, school camp outs on the beach, crashing a Richie Rich party, becoming a door-to-door salesman, we can all relate to that, can’t we?” writes Peruvian journalist Susanna Aguirre. “From the perms to the visors, the exaggerated patterned swimsuits and windbreakers, to the white fur lined jean jackets (I swear my brother had the exact same one growing up in the 90s) and vintage printed tees.”
ITALY: “Sole a cantinelle"
A prime example of the kind of domestic comedy that doesn’t translate or sell outside of domestic borders, “Sole a cantinelle” is easily Italy’s #1 film of the year with $69.3 million, taking in more than three times the amount of appropriate second place-holder “Despicable Me 2.” Not only that, it’s the third-biggest grosser in Italian history, after “Avatar” and “Titanic.” The film’s a vehicle for Cecco Zalone, a TV comic who unseated Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” as the most successful Italian film ever with his previous effort, “What A Beautiful Day.” Asked in November how he felt about being the top box office attraction in Italian history — more than Fellini, Mastroianni, etc. — Zalone’s response was “All I can say is it's fortunate they're all dead. Otherwise they'd be furious.”
In “Sole” (rough translation: “Sun In Buckets”), Zalone is a vacuum cleaner salesman who promises his son money if he makes good grades. Fiscally unable to actually deliver on his promise, the impoverished dad takes the kid on vacation to visit an elderly aunt, only to start fortune-hunting pursuit of a French woman. Maybe it’s unexportable because the comic psychology behind Zalone’s character is so specific: “We liked the idea of this stupid little man, a product of twenty years of Berlusconi era, for whom no ideology exists except for money,” Zalone said.
As for the jokes, this article’s shakily translated Italian runs down the highlights: “from masonic entrepreneurs to Che Guevara t-shirt wearing communists [...] radical chic yogis, vegans and therapy addicts. Auteur cinema is also part of the made-fun-of mix (you even find yourself laughing about euthanasia, a popular theme in recent films).”